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Motivating Volunteers to Motivate Voters
August 15, 2002

Both Parties have an ongoing problem of voter motivation. For the moment the Democrats are winning the battle of getting out the vote. But it wasn't always that way.

In the late eighties and early nineties, the Republican Party discovered the value of absentee ballots. By encouraging Republican voters to vote early and in the relative quiet of mid-October, the GOP was able to "bank" voters. Using comprehensive mail lists, they preprinted the individual voter's absentee ballot application then followed up with volunteer phone banks to encourage the voter to complete and mail the absentee ballot. By the mid-nineties, the Democratic Party had appropriated the technique. With the advent of powerful personal computers, the Democrats learned to track the success of their efforts. Voters who mailed their absentee ballots were now computer banked. Phone banks could concentrate on tardy absentee voters and prepare for election day get out the vote. The playing field had been leveled.

But in the late nineties the Democrats took the program to a new level. Using motivated "volunteers" especially borrowed from union ranks, Democrats stopped relying exclusivley on phone banks to gather absentee ballots. Now, "volunteers", some paid, would visit the voter at their residence. They would help the voter to fill out the absentee ballot application. Two weeks later, a volunteer would pickup the completed ballot and mail it for the voter or bundle it with other ballots and deliver them to the polls on or just before election day.

Meanwhile the Republican party continued to use phone banks to encourage voters to use vote by mail - often without computer tracking. The GOP currently does not have a ready army of volunteers to duplicate the Democrats program.

Then there is this advantage of Democrats. Voter de-motivation (to borrow a term from my colleague, Sam Harper.) The Democrats mastered the art of demonization. The birth of "hit pieces" occurred in San Francisco - a town which prides itself in extreme hardball politics. The ideal hit piece was printed several weeks before election day but mailed on the Tuesday or Wednesday before the election. It was intended to reach voters on the weekend, giving the opponent no time to respond. The battle of hit pieces continues to this day in San Francisco with candidates planting spies in the local print houses. Their job is to spot printed pieces and inform targetted campaigns so a response can be prepared to reach the voters at the same time as the "hit piece."

Republicans are just beginning to counter the predictable hit pieces that Democrats drop so regularly during the week before the election.

On the national level, Republicans are sometimes able to balance these two advantages of the Democrats - voter motivation and de-motivation - only when issues or a villian charges the campaign. Bill Clinton became such a motivating force during the mid-nineties. But that was reactionary. The Democrats have relied less on reaction, and more on vested interests. Their "volunteer" armies have particular interests that are blended into campaign promises and then into their campaign themes.

Until the Republican Party is able to indentify a reliable and standing volunteer army to carry out voter motivation programs, the Democrats will have campaign advantage for the foreseeable future. Part of that challenge will be to forge a coherent set of priorities that resound with volunteers. George W. Bush began that in his campaign -- for example, motivating parents with alternative educational choices. The war on terror interrupted that effort. In the end, motivating voters to vote begins with motivating thousands of volunteers to join in the effort of getting out the vote.



Award-winning TV producer, talk show host, and Republican leader Arthur Bruzzone has written over 150 political articles for national and regional media, and has commented on political issues for American and European television and radio networks.  His articles and columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Campaign & Elections Magazine, among other publications.

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